Democrats are breathing a sigh of relief. Joe Biden’s victories on “Mini Tuesday” make his delegate lead all but insurmountable. Bernie Sanders’s electoral weakness, compared with his performance four years ago, has dulled the fear of an incipient socialist takeover of the world’s oldest political party. The left is said to have talked itself into believing its own propaganda and helped President Trump equate Democrats with socialism. Victory in the primary did not come from pledges to eliminate private health insurance or impose wealth taxes. It followed from the perception that Biden is the candidate best able to defeat Trump.
Don’t write off the socialist revival just yet. Sanders might not win the Democratic nomination. But this outcome does not mean the forces that propelled him to second-place finishes in the two most recent Democratic primaries will vanish overnight. Abandoning the intellectual fight against socialism, both inside and outside the Democratic Party, would cede the field to an increasingly sophisticated and networked band of ideological activists whose influence in media and politics is greater than their numbers. Such ambivalence could have devastating consequences for American society.
The resurgent left has pushed Biden far beyond where he stood as vice president. And a socialist infrastructure guarantees the philosophy’s longevity. Aspiring Democratic politicians must at least deal with, if not pay obeisance to, groups such as the Working Families Party and the Democratic Socialists of America. Especially if they inhabit a deep-blue district ripe for picking by the “Squad.”
Fashionable, lively, radical, and controversial outlets, including Jacobin, Current Affairs, the Young Turks, Chapo Trap House, and Secular Talk, complement popular Instagram and Twitter accounts. And the New York Times magazine’s “1619 Project” shows that the mainstream media is responsive to, and willing to participate in, the latest trends in anti-Americanism.
The most obvious reason not to dismiss the Sanders phenomenon is demographic. On Super Tuesday, Sanders won 30- to 44-year-olds by 18 points, and 18- to 29-year-olds by a staggering 43 points. He defeated Biden by 9 points among Hispanic voters and by 25 points among Asian voters. Asian Americans are the fastest-growing ethnic group in the country. Hispanics are second. Sanders’s protegée, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 30-year-old woman of Puerto Rican descent, represents this ethno-generational cohort. Their place in American life will not be denied.
Right now, socialism is unpopular. Last month only 45 percent of adults told Gallup they would vote for a socialist for president. Last year a 51-percent majority said socialism would be a “bad thing” for the United States. But Gallup also found that the number who said socialism would be a “good thing” had risen to 43 percent in 2019 from 25 percent in 1942. A majority of Democrats have held positive views of socialism since 2010. A willingness to adopt the socialist ideal is most pronounced among the young. A YouGov poll conducted last year for the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation found that 70 percent of Millennials are either “somewhat” or “extremely” likely to vote for a socialist.
It is the decline in institutional religion that drives the resurgence of socialism. Gallup found that church membership among U.S. adults has dropped precipitouslyover the last two decades, to 50 percent in 2018 from 70 percent in 1998. Why? Because the percentage of adults who profess no religious affiliation has more than doubled. It has gone to 19 percent from 8 percent. The Millennials exhibit the lowest percentage of church membership among generations. Pew says the number of Americans who identify as Christians fell more than 10 points over the last decade as the number of religiously unaffiliated spiked. Here too the largest falloff was among Millennials.
Religion not only offers answers to the most powerful, definitive, and ultimate questions of human existence and purpose. It anchors individuals in a particular authoritative tradition defined by doctrinal orthodoxy and refined through multigenerational practice. People released from these bonds are capable of believing anything. Thus, socialism has returned at the same time as climate apocalypticism, transhuman and transgender ideology, anti-vaccination movements, anti-Semitism, conspiracies, and ethnonationalism. In this climate of relativism and revisionism, where the most outlandish theories are a Google search away, both Marxism and utopian socialism seem credible. Nothing is too absurd.
Irving Kristol said that it is easy to point out how silly and counterproductive and even deadly socialism has been, in so many respects, but difficult to recognize its pull as an emotional attachment. The love of equality and progress makes for a special and durable political passion. “Socialism,” wrote Irving Howe in 1954, “is the name of our desire.” In the absence of an intellectually coherent and morally compelling account of the inequalities inherent to liberal democracy, so will the desire remain.